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Where Does He Get Those Terrible Toys: An Interview with Ashens

Stuart Ashen makes a living by playing with crap on YouTube, and now he's written a book about awful video games. We needed a word.

by Mike Diver
16 December 2015, 2:07am

Ashen, "pissing about in a dinghy whilst dressed as a supply teacher", to use his own words (photo courtesy of the man himself)

He's a member of the million subscribers club on YouTube, but you might never have seen Stuart Ashen's face. His channel, ashens, typically features only his hands, cradling and fondling all manner of tat and crap and knock-off shite you wouldn't buy from that wonky bloke down the pub even for the comedy value inherent in coming home and declaring to your partner that you just bought a "Jar Jar Bonks" for your nephew this Christmas.

These figurines of questionable fun, these plastic nightmares coming in all the colours of a rainbow from where the sun never shines, are played around with in front of a beaten-up brown sofa for your entertainment. And it works; unbelievably, it pays. Every now and then he'll show up with a friend, perhaps another YouTuber, and he's got history of being on the real telly, too. But, mostly, Ashen's a YouTuber. And, like all good YouTubers, he's now brought out a book.

Unlike all good YouTubers, his book isn't about experiencing a "rage blackout" in a cheesecake factory, or his "sparkling eyes and perfect hair". (And you'll thank me for not linking you to those particular tomes.) His is no panic-buy stocking filler for a young relative whose very presence you despise for the whole four hours a year you have to share the same air, before you're safely out the door and back to your preferred reality of not pretending to know what a Zoella is. Rather, it's a valuable contribution to the ever-shifting culture we call video gaming. At least, I think so. It probably is.

It's called Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of, it's out now, and it's a laugh. And as Ashen seems to usually be up for a laugh, too, I thought it'd be neat to send him some questions. He answered them, for a laugh. You understand how this sort of feature works by now. It is almost 2016.

VICE: Shitty films, shitty songs – hell, even shitty food – we can get into all that. It doesn't last too long. We see the funny side. But shitty games, can they ever be "so bad they're good", or are the titles in the book completely unredeemable?

Stuart Ashen: All the games featured in the book are so far beyond redemption that they couldn't see it with a powerful telescope. The criteria for entry is that no reasonable person could have any fun playing them. I think that when games get truly terrible, they stop providing any entertainment at all.

Games are one of the few commercial mediums that can fail on a fundamental level, be it by utterly incompetent design or technical problems. Even an utterly awful movie like Keith Lemon: The Film basically works as a piece of narrative cinema. The audio is synched up to the visuals correctly, it doesn't cut to a black screen for several minutes halfway through, and at no stage is the character of Keith Lemon inexplicably replaced with one of the shambling abominations from Begotten. But if you bought SQIJ! for the ZX Spectrum, you paid for something literally unplayable – a game where the controls don't work, and there's nothing to do even if you manage to hack them into life.

Today, we don't really get too many legitimately shit video games, not in the sense of them being completely broken, anyway. Obviously exceptions slip through, but there tends to be a line drawn: we can't do Duke Nukem Forever, ever again. But "back in the day" this wasn't the case. I had a Spectrum and there was loads of diabolical crap on that. Which makes me wonder: are these "good" crap games that way because they're wrapped in nostalgia for a more Wild West-like, anything goes time in games production?

You're absolutely right that games are far higher quality now – there's still some dross, but at least there's basic QA testing. Unlike some of the budget games of old that were seemingly written in a week and rushed out by moped to a cassette duplication facility without actually being played by anyone. When a buggy mess like Aliens: Colonial Marines is released these days it's utterly eviscerated, and rightly so.

I think we do cut old games a bit of slack for nostalgia reasons – we remember the technical limitations of the time, but also there's a fondness for the bizarre ideas that could be produced. Look at Chubby Gristle, a game about an overweight car park attendant. These days a marketing consultant would demand he was changed into a rugged ex-Special Ops soldier who refuses to play by the rules, so he can feature on the front cover resting a rifle on his shoulder.

Terrible Old Games: The Book Awakens

You're a "YouTuber", yes, I mean, I suppose? A person who uses YouTube and does well with it. A million subscribers, congratulations! But isn't it a total cliché for YouTubers to release books now? How do you feel about having to "compete" with Zoella and all that noise?

I'd been wanting to turn Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of into a book for years. As you say, it seems like everyone with a YouTube account has released one, so I thought the time to strike had come. Those that went before had softened up the publishers so I could wow them with a compendium of appalling games, surely?

Sadly, things weren't that simple. I'm pretty far from the sort of YouTuber that inspires 14-year-old girls to buy stuff just because it has my name on, and the big publishers had zero interest in my extensive research into shitty Acorn Electron software. Fortunately Unbound loved the idea and understood that there is a large audience interested in retro games.

The nice thing about releasing a niche book that's not directly related to my YouTube channel is that I'm not competing with anyone. You don't need to have ever been on the Internet to read Terrible Old Games, let alone be familiar with my other work. It's in an entirely different space to the "YouTuber books" that rely more on brand recognition. Although if Zoella really gets into playing Amstrad CPC games, I could be in trouble.

Article continues after the video below

Just how bloody amazing is it that you get to do what you do as a job? And, does the sofa get a cut of the profits? I mean, what happens when you replace it? Remember New Coke? That's a warning from history for you, right there.

It's insane, isn't it? Imagine if I'd gone to the careers advisor in 1990 and said I wanted to make money by showing people tat and taking the piss a bit. The Internet has opened up so many weird opportunities for people. Perhaps I'd be more successful now if I'd spent less time studying and more time playing games.

The sofa gets nothing, even though it's probably sentient by now from the sheer amount of bacteria living in it. It'll probably need replacing soon as it's literally falling apart. Oddly it's modular – it originally consisted of five different parts that could be fitted together into sofas or separate chairs as needed, but now only two bits remain.

I may have to try and keep one part going, zombie-like, as I fear my audience may throw a shit-fit if I change it. I need a combination mad scientist and furniture expert. Herbert West – Reupholsterer, or something.

Related, on Noisey: The 123 Worst Musicians of All Time

OK, if you had to pick, say, three of the crap games in your book that, despite their crapness, or because of it, VICE readers should have a look at, what would they be? They'll probably emulate them, but that's better than nothing. Sort of.

Hunter for the Atari 8-bit, for how painfully basic, and yet incompetent, a game's design can be. Then Killer Caverns for the Oric, for how the player's actions have almost nothing to do with success or failure. And finally License to Kill – not the James Bond one – for the Acorn Electron, for how utterly empty, impossible and hateful it is.

Your readers may enjoy the funky music in Hunter. That is the only positive experience they will have with any of them. They should think carefully before playing any of these games as they will absolutely ruin their evening.


Terrible Old Games You've Probably Never Heard Of is available from internet sites that sell books and shops that are made of bricks and glass that do the same thing only with more dust. You can find Stuart on YouTube and Twitter.

@MikeDiver

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Terrible Old Games You’ve Probably Never Heard Of